Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline

I got into it with an old friend the other day for re-posting a story about some vile politician in a Southern state who supposedly said something reprehensible about certain people. In a comment on top of the re-post my friend had said, “I don’t know if this is true…”

What we got into (on a side conversation, not publicly on his FB page) was whether it was appropriate to re-post a story about despicable behavior. His argument was that by doing it, he helped cast a spotlight on this terrible person to embarrass him. But my counter-argument was that it was not only unproductive, it actually gave the bigoted politician in question more publicity online, and it served to fan the flames of rancor that is plaguing our country right now.

“Putting out the fire with gasoline,” as Bowie would put it. (Am I dating myself?)

It’s not called “viral” because it’s your friend.

Here’s how it works: The more people re-post a Tweet or any social media post, the more visible it becomes in a search query. That’s what makes it viral, a metaphor for digital contagion. It’s the way SEO (Search Engine Optimizaton) works. You’ve all noticed this: As you start to type your key search words, the most posted pages with those words come up before you’ve even finished typing. It’s kind of infuriating actually, like a spouse who constantly finishes your sentences for you…wrongly.

Search engines are morally and politically neutral (unless you’re in Communist China, of course). They don’t distinguish between good and bad. They just keep track of what’s popular. So the more an inflammatory post is shared, the higher its Page Rank (named after Google co-founder Larry Page, not “page” as in search page). While you may want to humiliate a bad actor by exposing his odious behavior or statements, you also make him come up first on the searches by like-minded creeps. And they all get together online to pat each other on the back and goad each other into even more reprehensible behavior. “I didn’t know there were others who felt like me!” You help in their recruiting drive.

Cyberwarfare

The other reason this re-posting of shocking things hurts is that it has become a cyberweapon used by totalitarian countries who wish democracies, especially the American democracy, would come crashing down.  The Mueller Report detailed the tactics that Russian intelligence used in using social media to get us to fly at each others’ throats. As described in the report, Russian operatives, masquerading as concerned Americans, would post some flagrantly offensive thing on Twitter or FaceBook or YouTube and within minutes they would go viral as outraged real Americans re-posted them ad infinitum. The next thing you know, a post gets millions of views and a Page Rank of 1. And we’re all that much angrier at each other (not at the Russians).

False propaganda is an old military tactic: Cause dissension within your enemy’s ranks. I don’t know if Sun Tzu  or Machiavelli listed it, but it is very, very old. And now it’s being used in technology that Machiavelli wouldn’t even have dreamed about.

My friend prefaced his re-post of the story with “I don’t know if this is true…” Which means he didn’t stop to think if it wasn’t a seed planted by a Russian troll to get us to hate each other. He went with his gut. Normally a very thoughtful person, the story so outraged him (as it would any decent human), that he let his emotions knock his reason aside and take the wheel. And he re-posted it. That the story later turned out to be verified by a number of mainstream news organizations doesn’t matter; it was the shoot-first -and-ask-questions-later action that does the damage. It didn’t help.

So when you re-post something that makes you angry about your compatriots, and you’re not sure of its source, you actually help the enemies of democracy, turning the machine gun on your own people. Don’t do it.

This is a very destructive form of marketing. But it’s still marketing.

 

 

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